Once Upon A Time
A Sense of Place
by Munir Atalla
Cover: Birds by Lizzy Stewart www.abouttoday.co.uk
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It is that bond between land, seasons, family and community that gives us our true sense of place and what matters, writes Munir Atalla.
It was the first year my grandfather had to use a stick to walk, but I was too young to know what that meant, and we were still going to pick wild flowers in the Jordanian hillside like we did every spring. I called him Jiddo, and he would sport jeans with a formal belt, hiking boots, and a traditional headdress held in place by a wreath of woven black rope. “It’s an old Bedouin trick for the desert; it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” he remarked. Intense anemones in red and purple poked their heads out of the weeds for barely a week each spring. Jiddo always knew which week to take us for a picnic. As we hiked, he would point out things on the ground that I was only learning to notice, like a shard of ceramic pottery from another century. “Always pick the flowers by cutting their stems, rather than pulling out the entire bulb, so that they will grow again next year,” he would teach. “Now pick out some nice ones for your grandmother.” They never looked as good in a vase. My grandmother always loved the wild flowers. She would gaze at their petals as they basked in the sun. They reminded her of herself; she knew what it was like to be uprooted. As the summer came roaring in, the grasses turned from light green to glistening golden brown, and the last of the year’s wild flowers wilted.
My uncle Samer has a fanatical love of tomatoes, one of his lovable idiosyncrasies. Their bright energy and vibrant charm are a reflection of his personality. He once took me trekking in the summer near the biblical lowlands of the river Jordan. We pushed our way through lofty reeds on foot until we stumbled upon a crate of firm round tomatoes, hidden in the shade by a farmer. “Do you know how to eat a tomato?” he invited. As I gripped one of the fruits in my palm and bit into it, I caught a glimpse of boyish mischief in his eye. I bit in, and juice gushed out in all directions, the light red fluid streaming down my arm to my elbows. Samer burst into laughter. “Bite slowly, and then suck the juices in,” he demonstrated. “The tomato plant is not indigenous to this land: luckily it has adapted, and now tomatoes grow with the olives and the figs.” We pocketed some more for chopping into a salad with cucumbers, green onions and sumac. “My mother calls this ‘farmer’s salad’; my father calls it ‘Jordanian salad’. It’s all about what you’re used to. With some oil and salt, it’s as fresh and delicious as the summer itself. Around this time, the winds of Jordan pick up a fresh kiss of autumn chill, and the land exhales away the summer.
Olive picking each year is a festival. Once the trees are ripe, harvesters come from all over the countryside and spread out their green blankets under the far-reaching branches to catch the olives as they drop. Each autumn, my uncle Maher takes me to help. He stands proud and dignified in the grove, and watches the workers as he tells me about the harvest. Olive trees are peculiar in that they only have an outstanding harvest every other year, but each year we prune them the same. It is as if the trees give us all they can one year, and take the next to recover. The standard olive-picking technique is to grip the base of a loaded branch and drag your hand down along it. Leaves and twigs stay on the tree, but the hard green fruit falls to the ground. Everyone participates in the harvest: men, women and children. It is a tradition ingrained in our heritage. As a boy I saw this ritual as an outing, but I have come to realise that it means much more than that. The harvest is not just an exercise in resourcefulness, but an invaluable bond that is formed between the members of the community. We grow, we change, but like the branches on a tree we are there for each other during any storm. Next we go to a large warehouse of machines and sounds where the virgin olive oil is pressed. There is a dank smell of crushed leaves and olive pits as we tour the place. “Olive trees never die,” states Maher in his language rich with metaphors. One year we will be back in our homeland, he seemed to say. The olive might be giving us a weak harvest now, but it is only resting, so that it can give us back our luck later. After the olive trees have been unburdened of their fruits, the winter slowly closes its grip on the land.
One winter morning before the first light, my father pulled me out of bed to see the city come alive. From his car we watched the dark blue houses turn navy, grey, then yellow with the morning. “I’m thinking about starting to worship the sun,” he declared, slightly too serious. We continued to the south, to the part of Jordan where the oranges grow. An old gate with rusted paint fenced in the citrus grove where we parked. Here was the land of eternal summer, the valley of the river. From the dark green trees hung fiery orbs that contained all the ripeness of a setting sun. That was Baba, intuition, passion, and the bitter-sweet smell of clementines on a cold morning. His stretched arm pulled down an orange from a nearby tree. His fingers were long tools as he dug them into the rind and peeled away the blood orange’s leathery skin in one long twist. Beneath it was a deep burgundy flesh that lit his fingertips pink and stained my lips with colour. Under us the dirt had caught spots of dark red that resembled blood in the light. “Regardless of which side of the valley we stand, the blood that drips out of you and me is Palestinian,” said my father. “If we don’t remember which tree we came from, then we will have forever lost our orchard.”
At times when the earth beneath you seems to tremble with every step, the only solid grounding is family. Our roots stay strong, no matter what the season.